Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Christmas change

Having voted for change this fall, how will Americans change this Christmas? Fewer gifts? Smaller gifts? Retailers, many of whom depend upon the holidays for much of their annual profit, are forecasting a slim season. People are just too nervous to binge.

For years, I’ve been trying to re-orient our family away from stuff and toward more meaningful gifts. I have failed for a variety of reasons. I like stuff. I like new electronics. I like to lavish things on my wife and children. But what I really want to give them is a heart for others. It’s up to the dad to set the spiritual temperature in the home, and the generosity temperature. It’s hard to give generosity if you don’t have it.

We’ve done the gift boxes for Samaritan’s Purse. The kids loved filling the shoeboxes and decorating them. We’ve been talking about buying soccer balls or a goat through their on line catalog. SHIPPING DEADLINE IS NOV. 24.

Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program is also very cool, totally righteous. Buying gifts for children of the incarcerated is another way of “visiting those who are in prison” (Matthew 25).

I just found a new project, which has true life-sustaining, life-improving potential. Charity: Water builds wells and teaches rural poor in Liberia (and elsewhere) about sanitation and hygiene.

Liberia should get lots of special attention from the U.S. as it was the landing place for mid-19th century black Americans who wanted to return to Africa. And, again, believers are charged to give water to the thirsty (Matthew 25). I cannot remember a time when I was thirsty and did not have a drink of clean water within seconds or minutes. But one-sixth of the people on the planet are thirsty for clean water every day of their lives. Thousands die daily for lack of it.

And for the month of December, maybe I’ll re-direct our entire family’s spare change to the Salvation Army’s red kettles.

I’ll keep trying to give away more and indulge less. I’ll get along without some new gadget for a bit longer. And when I do get my next toy, I won’t feel guilty about it, because a few more people are drinking clean water.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election night quotes…

John McCain
“Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

“Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone…

“I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Barack Obama
"It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

“I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand. What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

"To those - to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The President's job, since 1788

"... in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."

What a whirlwind of intellectual and emotional conflict this long, long election season has been.

Competing interests, philosophical strife, personal wants and needs, deepest hopes and fears, all have been brought to the surface in the race between the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket and Barack Obama-Joe Biden ticket (or all those third party candidates for whom you can vote “on principle”).

“… with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Declaration of Independence

Inside the privacy of the voting booth/cubicle/dining room table, I suspect that most Americans will vote on their “lives” (meaning national security/strong defense/terrorism) and their fortunes (“who’s gonna get this economy humming again”). Our sacred honor is not as much a factor, except for, perhaps, evangelical Christians or the most principled among us. This factor makes today’s “moral” issues (abortion, traditional marriage, embryonic stem cell research) fringe issues. That may be why the major candidates gave so little attention to these matters.

Without confessing my own deep struggle between core theological and political views (mostly conservative) and personal identification with race and history (progressive-revisionist), I first had to come to peace with a decision (just make a decision!). I finally resolved the issue by voting my head and praying my heart. Weird and conflicted.

But what does the U.S. Constitution say? If you’re a “limited government” type like me, the Constitution will lead you to the conclusion that we are asking way more of our government than it and its President are empowered to provide. (A different bias will lead one to another conclusion.)

Article II of the Constitution (link to the National Archives ) outlines the job of the Executive branch of government, led by the President, and checked and balanced by the Legislative branch (Article I) and the Judicial branch (Article III). It’s tightly edited. I love that. It specifies what the President must do.

Section 1 outlines the “chusing” of the President, including all that jazz about the term length, Electors (“Electoral College”), citizenship, succession, compensation, and oath. (Pretty fascinating reading, and it proves why the Union is nowhere near a Constitutional crisis. Those founding fathers were sharp, and had contingencies all plotted out.)

Sections 2 and 3 of Article II include the meat of the presidential job description. Section 2 says we’re counting on our president to handle the military (as Commander-in-Chief), grant reprieves and pardons for unjust federal convictions, write treaties (which would cover international relations, including another ignored issue this campaign – immigration), and nominate ambassadors, officers, and most significantly, “Judges of the supreme Court.”

Section 3 outlines the President’s “bully pulpit” powers. He gets to convene both houses of Congress for a “State of the Union” address “from time to time.” He gets to recommend things to the Congress (shouldn’t we all), and he has the power to convene or adjourn both or either houses. He receives ambassadors (should that not have been in Section 2?). He enforces the laws, and he commissions officers.

That’s it. That’s all. That’s plenty. So why do candidates give us many and varied position papers on all manner of policy? How has the President’s cabinet grown to 15 departments (plus the VP, Chief of Staff, OMB, EPA and Trade Rep.)? And there are countless commissions, bureaus and regulatory bodies.

I started thinking about this article by listing the things that mattered most to me in the selection of good presidential material. My issues were: sanctity of life, strong defense (meaning demonstrated personal courage and “toughness,” commitment, and understanding of lethal force), grasp of international relations, leadership and persuasive ability (important for Congressional deal-making), staff and campaign management (the rigors of a national campaign are a solid test of such abilities), personal character, and legal philosophy (by the way, not automatically best handled by lawyers).

Way down the list are various policy positions and proposals on the economy, taxes, health care, the environment, education, and energy.

That’s when I went back to the Constitution. That’s what I usually end up doing, going back to those original, fabulous, creative, flexible, firm documents. Though flawed, they are what the National Archives call “The Charters of Freedom.”

Given what the Constitution outlines, I’m looking for less from government, not more. It will take a stout leader to scale back this monolith of bureaucracy we’ve created. It will take a deep and abiding faith in individuals, in order to allow us to chart our own course and provide for the weakest among us voluntarily. I don’t know how the next President or any President will get us where we need to go.

It’s time to pray.